What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken
Photo by Richard Termine

I’m most drawn to works exploring the extremes of body and mind. These pieces offer us a place where we can get involved with sounds, processes, and ideas that aren’t already part of our lives. Through them, we enter environments in which time, emotion, and logic, as we’re used to them, become defamiliarized. Someone once said about the director Andrei Tarkovsky, “That’s not an aesthetic, that’s a lifestyle.” In this sense, I am looking more for a lifestyle than an aesthetic. I want a new piece that, whether it’s three minutes or an hour and a half, will change how we think and feel.

As a performer, I’m also drawn to very physical piano writing. Virtuosity isn’t just empty flash. The act of transcending or trying to transcend one’s technical limitations on stage is an incredibly intimate act. When I’m stretched the thinnest, that’s when the experience is most intense for everyone. Jousting with technical challenges in real time brings forth revealing, dramatic performances—performances free of the affectation and fakery that can come with “thoughtful interpretation.” Instrumental virtuosity, and the grace, strength, and discipline it requires, is beautiful and compelling in itself.